Bank of the West, the San Francisco-based subsidiary of the French giant Banque Nationale de Paris, has been gobbling up retail branches in Northern California for years, but isn't sated.

It recently hired Merrill Lynch & Co. to scout more California acquisition targets. "A lot of properties are available," said Bank of the West president Don J. McGrath.

But community bank owners aren't holding their breath. Bank of the West, which has grown to $3.4 billion in assets, is known as a bottom fisher that buys distressed banks and thrifts at low prices. With many potential acquirers on the sidelines because of the California economy, it can drive a harder bargain than ever.

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